With the Soviet bloc’s collapse and the evidence of socialism’s appalling failures and human cost, capitalism seems triumphant. Francis Fukuyama even proclaimed the “end of history”: ideological conflicts are over; only managerial and technical controversies remain.
For Father Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute, this facile optimism is untenable. Pragmatic defenses of liberty are inadequate. “So long as economic liberty—and its requisite institutions of private property, free exchange, capital accumulation, contract enforcement—is not backed by a generally held set of norms by which it can be defended, it cannot be sustained over the long term.” In this admirably pithy and lucid monograph, Father Sirico helps remedy that defect.
Why do freedom’s foes hold the moral high ground? Father Sirico rightly argues that “Many of the confusions of our age rest on a loss of crucial distinctions”: between rights and privileges, between society and government, and between freely chosen action and action enforced by coercion. While exposing the muddle, he restores those lost distinctions. To be inalienable, rights must be grounded in something independent of politics. Bogus new “rights” are actually politically-granted privileges. Similarly, “today the term community is often used to put a humanitarian gloss on what used to be called a political pressure group.” Coerced virtue is oxymoronic: “A morality that is not chosen is no morality at all. Only human beings with volition can be said to be moral, and in order to act in a moral way one must have liberty.”
Capitalism fosters morality; entrepreneurs must be other-regarding “because the only way to get money peacefully and without charity is to offer something of value in exchange.” But Father Sirico’s main argument is that liberty and capitalism are grounded in Judaism, Christianity, and Thomistic natural law.
Seeking “liberty under the law of Yahweh,” the ancient Hebrews viewed God, not the state, as the source of justice, which enabled them “to escape tyranny by an appeal to an objective standard of justice against oppression.” Christianity “employs the model of the family, not the state, as the ideal human community,” with love, not power, as the cement of community life, and religion’s view of people as inherently dignified gives them a claim to rights. St. Thomas Aquinas’ natural law, drawing on both experience and reason, “establishes the sanctity of the individual as a rational being who can interpret the relationship between the individual and the community in terms of free association and contract.” Aquinas’ followers elaborated an economics amazingly close to that of the Austrians.
Unfortunately, religious leaders tend to be economic illiterates, hence hostile to wealth producers. Most endorse the welfare state “on the fairly crude premise that Christian charity and coercive wealth transfers are morally identical.” This unfortunately discourages charity among the laity. Father Sirico argues instead for the authentic compassion of personal, local-level involvement in helping poor people.
Father Sirico’s arguments are important and valid—so much so that he might have done still better to devote himself solely to elaborating his case for liberty, giving his shrewd criticisms of the welfare state and religious leaders economic illiteracy the separate works they deserve.
In an appended commentary, Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, chides him for evading egalitarianism’s hostility to capitalism as creator of an immoral inequality of wealth. True, Father Sirico said little about this, but Lawson’s charge that “he virtually sells the pass with a puzzling (and distinctly un-Hayekian) reference to `the demands of justice (classically defined as giving to each his due)”’ is unfair. If people contribute unequally to production, giving them their due generates inequality, yet is just.
Journalist William Oddie comments that capitalism and liberty require virtues to endure, but today’s global disappearance of values makes their survival problematic. He ends gloomily: “`Where there is no vision, the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18), but where is vision to be found? Father Sirico knows; but will we listen?”
Perhaps not. But those who do choose to redeem the time will find A Moral Basis for Liberty valuable.
John Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a Ph.D. in economics.